Bokeh balls. I wasn’t aware that was a phrase but apparently, it is, according to this rather amusing video by Kai and Lok. In the video, they are having a look at two admittedly wildly different lenses, both with the feature of having very wide apertures and seeing what the bokeh is like for each of these.
For those of you who may not know, bokeh is the out of focus fuzzy parts of the image. Usually, as photographers, we are obsessed (a little bit) with how sharp a lens is. But with very wide apertures the opposite is also quite important as you want a pleasing creamy smooth effect in the background. Some lenses due to the shape of the aperture blades create different shapes of bokeh from hexagonal to perfectly round.
The two lenses being compared are the Laowa Argus 35mm f/0.95 lens and the TTArtisan M 90mm f/1.25 lens. As you can see they are clearly very different in terms of focal length, and it does seem to me to be slightly strange to be comparing such vastly different lenses. But according to the duo, they are looking at background blur, not anything else, particularly in this instance. In my experience, a longer focal length lens is almost always going to produce more bokeh, but is more actually better?
So what constitutes good bokeh? Generally, the bokeh police prefer no hard outlines around the out of focus areas, and the background should not draw attention away from the subject. The bokeh should be smooth and blend easily into itself, but there is no general definition, ultimately it’s all down to personal taste.
At the first look, the TTArtisan lens appears to be very heavy, possibly going a bit far with not just a titanium look but a weight to match. The Laowa lens looks very much like the rest of their lens range and is manual focus – not too easy to do at these wide-open apertures. Again like the other lenses in the Laowa range, you can choose whether the aperture ring is ‘clicked’ or ‘de-clicked’ which is useful when shooting video.
One of the interesting points that Lok brings up is why would anyone ever need to be shooting at f0.95? Usually, the widest I ever shoot at is f/2.8 because I kind of like some things to be in focus usually, and not just the tip of my subject’s eyelash, but maybe I’m missing something. The answer seems to be ‘because we can’, and the two guys actually do admit that these two lenses are sort of impractical in most instances.
Kai also questions the usefulness of this fast of a lens. “People say it looks cinematic,” he says, “but when you watch a movie there are not too many shots that are really ‘bokeh-fied’.”
So how do the two lenses stack up? The TTArtisan has some flaring issues and needs the lens hood, the Laowa fares a little better with this and in terms of better contrast. The bokeh is looking pretty good with both lenses with the foliage of the trees looking quite smooth.
Obviously shooting in daylight with such wide apertures presents additional issues, and an ND filter ends up having to be used. Hilarity ensues as the pair further test the lenses by making stock type images of people with headaches or stomach issues. The Laowa lens is once again looking good at such a wide-open aperture, with low chromatic aberration. The TTArtisan however, appears to be more difficult to get in focus and isn’t as sharp as the Laowa, with slightly “funkier” looking bokeh. Not bad per see, but also not really impressing anyone.
Generally, it seems that the Laowa wins the battle of the bokeh, particularly in the middle of the frame. In both lenses, the edges seem to veer into slightly less good territory with the TTArtisan having “accentuated bokeh balls” the closer to the edge of the frame you get.
The takeaway? Both lenses are heavy and designed for very specific purposes. Both produce pleasing bokeh in their own way, it’s as Kai puts it, “just a matter of ball softness, texture and shape.” Indeed. Kai says he prefers Laowa’s balls as they are just “smooth and gorgeous” but ultimately it’s all down to personal preference. I would say smooth balls are the way forward, obviously, we are still talking about bokeh here ;)
What do you prefer?